In + the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Pray be seated.
IT is always an honor and a privilege to sit in this place of sacred worship, and it is a great responsibility, to me, to be given the task of addressing this community from this pulpit. Since Jamie asked me a month or two ago, I have been reflecting on what will most likely be my last message in this nave. Many of you may know that I have accepted an offer to return to my hometown and alma mater, Auburn, to continue my doctoral studies. I have spent a large portion of this semester thinking about the end of my days among you, and I think it very poignant that that largest part of that time has been during the season of Lent. Lent is a time set aside for us to think about the things we have done, the things we have left undone, and to prepare ourselves for the death and rebirth of baptism. In pursuit of these awesome labors we take upon ourselves a spiritual discipline to refine us into the holy vessels of our God.
Many of you know, because Fr. Jamie outed me on Ash Wednesday, that I have given up swearing for Lent. I received a lot of mixed reactions from that one. Some people asked me what possessed me to limit my vocabulary so during a Trump presidency. Others applauded my decision to “clean up my speech.” Well, we are 29 days into Lent, and I am here to tell you it has been hard. I gave up hot water in 2011, and let me tell you 40 days of cold showers is a cake walk. Episcopal Relief and Development will be a hefty sum wealthier come Easter Sunday. All joking aside, this process of refining has been both enlightening and difficult. Meaningful things always are, and Lent is not supposed to be easy. The act of becoming sacred is supposed to hurt, is supposed to be a sacrifice.
The reason I elected to eschew swearing for the 40 days of Lent had nothing to do with the words themselves. I personally do not believe that swearing is wrong or indicative of poor moral character. While I could take my time tonight to launch into a half-hour diatribe on the classist and racist undertones of labeling words as “swear-words” and how doing so is a power-play to control the teeming masses, I will abstain. You aren’t here for Feminism 102. Simply put, I gave up swearing because I know that it makes people uncomfortable. I wanted my refinement this season to be one of consideration for the sensibilities of others. As a social activist I am not often in the business of making other people comfortable. Indeed, my entire life is dedicated to shaking up things and not-so-subtly telling people that their beliefs cannot be used to police other people. I swear like a sailor, and I love it. It is liberating, and it is freeing. Ask any of my students what my favorite word is, and they will tell you it begins with an f and ends with a k. To me it is a noun, a verb, an adverb, an adjective, and a pronoun. It is so effective at grabbing people’s attention, so satisfying to scream in a moment of anger, and so delicious when muttered under my breath. Yes, it has been a long and frustrating 29 days.
Tonight we are observing the feast of John Donne, one of my favorite English poets. While I can’t speak to Donne’s opinion on swearing, I think that he would approve of my motivation. In what is probably his most well-known works Donne declares:
No [person] is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each [person’s] death diminishes me,
For I am involved in [humankind].
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
In the time of Donne, and still observed by some churches today, a bell was rung at the time of the death of a member of the parish. The death knell, or tolling of the bell, signified to the community the loss of one of its own. A reduction in the companions travelling toward that great place of hope and redemption. Donne implores us to consider their loss, and to consider it a personal loss. A diminishment of oneself. As a community we are inextricably bound to one another. The joys of one are the joys of all. The sorrow of one is the sorrow of all.I am certain most of you can think of someone who once sat in this sacred space who is no longer here. Someone faithful saint called to glory, or some friend called away to another place to continue their calling. Their absence is felt just as the absence of the organ would be felt. Or the altar. Or our new stained glass windows. Or even this entire building.
Just as their absence is felt, so is their presence. Our Gospel reading for this evening reminds us, as Donne’s verse does, that we are bound to one another through the love of God and the sacrifice of Jesus. The passage tells us that the Father and the Son are one, and what the Father does, so does the Son. Elsewhere in the scriptures we are told that in taking upon the sin of the world, Jesus made it possible that we become one with Him through the death and resurrection of Holy Baptism. We become in a very real since the living embodiment of Christ, and consequently, of God. As the Father does so Christ does, as Christ does, so do we. And as a community of pilgrims to that blessed country, what I do, so do you, and what you do, so do I.
In these dark and troubling times of “me first” and “making ourselves great” at the expense of others, it is easy for us to lose sight of the very real fact that no person is an island entire of itself, no nation is a nation entire to itself. We live in a time of “I shall say what I want and do what I please because I am free and my beliefs are my beliefs and to hell with everyone else.” And while all of these things are true, we do have the right to express ourselves as we want, right does not always equal right. I am not saying that people should stop being themselves because it makes other people uncomfortable. Absolutely not, and I plan on using the women’s room no matter how uncomfortable it makes other people or how many laws are passed. What I am saying is sometimes we forget to consider the perspective of others in our pursuit of “me first.” When we forget that, then we lose sight of their personhood. When we lose that, then we are no better than the ones who seek to destroy and consume in the name of greatness and firstness.
In our tradition, bells signal not only the end, but the beginning. In a few moments, as Fr. Jamie blesses the sacraments, a bell will ring to signify the presence of our resurrected Christ in this place. In the same manner, the bell which signals the death of a saint announces their presence in glory. “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” As we approach the end of our time of penitent contemplation, let us remember that which we have cast off in the name of our preparation for glory, let us remember those who we have lost and those who walk among us, and let us remember that true greatness comes with great humility, and being first requires that we be last.
–Originally preached at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Fargo, ND on March 29, 2017–